University of Delaware discovery is boon for ‘green’ hydrogen fuel

    Researchers at the University of Delaware have found a much cheaper way to produce hydrogen fuel, a promising renewable energy source that can be made from water.

     “Compared to the fossil fuels we use, hydrogen fuel doesn’t have any carbon in it,” said Feng Jiao, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware. “If you look at the end product, it’s not carbon dioxide. Actually, it’s water.”

    One of the hurdles in making the technology mainstream, however, is its high cost. Producing hydrogen fuel from water requires precious metal catalysts to drive the reaction. Platinum is the standard, and, currently, it’s more than $1,000 an ounce.

    In a finding reported this month in the journal Nature Communications, Jiao and his colleagues have figured out how to use a copper alloy as a catalyst instead.

    “If you put a little bit of titanium onto copper,” he said, “you change the hydrogen binding energy on the surface, which makes it about right.”

    The combination of metals works even better than platinum at a fraction of the cost.

    The result has the potential to radically change the economic calculus of creating hydrogen fuel in an environmentally friendly way. But first, reactions with the new catalyst will have to be scaled up for commercial use — a process that Jiao estimates might take a few years.

    For now, Jiao is investigating whether a copper-titanium mix might also work to drive the reverse reaction, and efficiently burn hydrogen in a fuel cell.

    “Eventually we will have a device for hydrogen production and another device for energy conversion to get that electricity back,” said Jiao. “One catalyst can probably do both things.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.